Study War No More

Review of Touching Peace : From the Oslo Accord to a Final Agreement, by Yossi. Beilin. 292 pp., London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1999.

Avi Shlaim

New York Times Book Review, 20 August 2000.

Appearances are often deceptive. On the face of it, nothing was achieved by the recent meeting between Ehud Barak, Yasser Arafat, and Bill Clinton at the presidential retreat at Camp David. Yet everything has changed. For the first time, serious negotiations took place on the highly sensitive issues of Jerusalem and refugees. A taboo has been broken. Jerusalem is no longer a sacred symbol but the subject of hard bargaining. The right of return of the Palestinian refugees is no longer just a slogan but an issue in search of a practical solution.

The Camp David summit was one more station on the long and winding road to peace that started at Oslo. The accord between Israel and the PLO, signed on the White House lawn on 13 September 1993 and sealed with the hesitant handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, represented a reversal of Zionist strategy in the 100 year-old conflict. Zionist leaders, before and after 1948, sought to bypass the local Arabs and to reach an understanding with the rulers of the neighbouring Arab states. Oslo marked a historic breakthrough because it was the first formal agreement between the two principal parties to the conflict: Israel and the Palestinians.

The principal architect of this revolution in Israel’s foreign policy was a 45 year-old deputy Foreign Minister named Yossi Beilin. Beilin had worked as a journalist and as a lecturer in Political Science before going into politics. He quickly established himself in the Labour Party’s Young Guard as a militant moderate and as a spokesman for social reform, equal rights for Israel's Arab minority, and reconciliation with the Palestinians. Some of his colleagues even criticized him for his ‘Palestinian obsession’. The Labour Party had been wedded ever since June 1967 to the so-called Jordanian option which saw King Hussein of Jordan as Israel’s partner in a peace settlement rather than the Palestinians. Beilin denied that there was a Jordanian option: he wanted to tackle the root cause of the conflict. For two decades he consistently maintained that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be settled on the basis of mutual recognition. He also argued that talking to the PLO was an essential condition for an agreement with the Palestinians. The ‘hobby’ he developed, as he points out in this reflective and revealing memoir, was trying to split the atom of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, on the assumption that this would facilitate the attainment of comprehensive peace in the region (p. 46).

In the first half of this book, Beilin gives a full and fascinating account of the secret talks that culminated in the Oslo accord. Two Israeli academics, Dr Yair Hirschfeld and Dr Ron Pundak, conducted the exploratory talks in the Norwegian capital with the representatives of the PLO. But it was the junior minister who took upon himself the awesome responsibility for initiating the dialogue with the enemy without the authorisation of his superiors. Beilin did not inform Shimon Peres of the back channel until the negotiators had drafted a declaration of principles for Palestinian self-government. Peres immediately grasped the potential inherent in this semi-academic exercise. He persuaded Rabin to give a green light, albeit a flickering one, to this unconventional diplomatic venture and together they steered it to its successful conclusion. Beilin pays a handsome tribute to all the members of the ‘Oslo Club’ but it is he who deserves the lion’s share of the credit for the breakthrough on the Palestinian track.

If the Oslo track was the breakthrough, the Stockholm track reached the heart of the dispute: Jerusalem, the rights of the Palestinian refugees, the future of the Jewish settlements on the West Bank, and the borders of the Palestinian entity. The secret talks in Stockholm on these issues were conducted by Hirschfeld and Pundak under the direction of Beilin and two Palestinian academics under the direction of Arafat’s deputy, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). At a meeting in Tel Aviv on the last day of October 1995 the academics presented the fruits of their labours. Abu Mazen was very emotional; when they embraced Beilin saw tears in his eyes. In their hands they held a document comprising a complete or almost complete solution to the conflict.

The Beilin-Abu Mazen plan envisaged an independent but demilitarized Palestinian state over 90-95 per cent of the West Bank and Gaza with a capital in Abu Dis just outside the municipal boundary of Jerusalem as defined by Israel. Israel would annex a strip of land along the 1967 border where the great majority of the settlers reside. Palestinian refugees who chose to do so could settle in the Palestinian state but would not be admitted to Israeli sovereign territory. An international commission was to be set up to rehabilitate the refugees and Israel was to make a financial contribution to the commission’s work.

The Beilin-Abu Mazen plan met the basic Palestinian demand for independence and statehood. One of the Palestinian negotiators described the plan as ‘the deal of the century’. Beilin had every reason to believe that Rabin would accept it but on 4 November the brave prime minister fell victim to an assassin’s bullet. Peres, who succeeded Rabin, rejected the plan and proceeded to lose the elections of May 1996 to Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu spent his three years in power in an attempt to subvert the Oslo agreements, only to discover that the Oslo process had become irreversible.

With the election of Ehud Barak the Oslo process was back on track and Yossi Beilin, now Minister of Justice, is playing a characteristically creative part in pushing it forward. At a meeting on 21 June, Beilin presented to the inner cabinet for the first time the details of the understanding that he had reached with Abu Mazen in 1995. In the subsequent discussion, according to press reports, a consensus emerged in favour of handing over around 90 per cent of the West Bank and Gaza to the nascent Palestinian state. Even Ehud Barak was said to support the plan on the eve of his departure for the ill-starred summit meeting with Yasser Arafat and Bill Clinton at Camp David. Some of the bolder proposals put forward by Barak at the summit were inspired by the five-year old plan. By placing these proposals on the negotiating table, he shifted the Israeli-Palestinian dispute from the realm of symbols and dreams to the realm of reality. The Beilin-Abu Mazen plan was still-born but, despite the failure at Camp David, it is still the only game in town.